Underneath its sci-fi horror trappings, Lifeforce is a romantic comedy with a splash of gothic longing for flavor. She’s Space Girl (Mathilda May), a monster from outer space who aims to harvest humankind’s souls in order to feed her interstellar vampire brethren. He’s Colonel Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), an American astronaut racing to prevent his planet from succumbing to the plague wrought by Space Girl’s scheme. Complicating matters is Tom’s blossoming sexual obsession with the girl, which is understandable as she’s convincingly positioned by director Tobe Hooper as the comeliest creature in all of the cosmos—the one woman who might pull appreciative eyes away from Helen of Troy.
Watching Lifeforce now is to be reminded that even big-budget films were once allowed to be adventurous and idiosyncratic, even in the 1980s, and that American horror movies were once capable of being fun, sexy, and subversively empathetic. The film is a surprisingly loyal adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, only with a hugely phallic spaceship hidden behind Haley’s Comet as a substitute for the castle in Transylvania, and Hooper utilizes this knowingly ridiculous premise as a springboard for honoring a variety of influences, particularly Hammer horror movies and Mario Bava’s filmography. On paper, there’s really no way that this hodgepodge of tones and intentions should be remotely coherent, but the filmmaker manages to hold everything together with a quietly fluid authority.
With Lifeforce, Hooper parodies the sexual panic that informs the classic vampire tale, which is often famously preoccupied with the fear that giving in to what truly turns you on could upset your carefully governed symbiosis with the rest of society—a subtext that Hooper immediately elevates to text with a series of opening moments that follow Tom’s crew as they enter a collection of alien chambers that must surely constitute some of the most vaginally symbolic imagery in all of American cinema. The crew enters this huge figurative female passageway and must soon grapple with its master’s wrath in the guise of the always-very-naked Space Girl.
Many people who know Lifeforce at all probably do so for May’s conspicuous nudity, a ploy that might be distasteful in a lesser director’s hands. May is so amply displayed, partially, for a simple reason: She’s a beautiful woman, and this film belongs to a genre with a history of showcasing beautiful women in lurid scenarios that are meant to titillate predominantly male audiences. Hooper manages to satirize that convention while indulging it, all without succumbing to hypocrisy, because he shoots May with an authentic reverence for her beauty. A former dancer, May gives a graceful, authoritative performance that affirms the film’s governing concerns.
Those concerns ultimately boil down to the classic male question of “What do women want?” The human souls are a blunt symbol for a man’s devotion, his bodily juices, his “essence,” as Tom struggles with the question of how much of himself he wants to give to Space Girl, and whether or not she justifies the sacrifice—a question that’s decidedly answered in a hot, gothic sex scene that Bava would’ve surely applauded. Tom eventually comes to his senses, and he and Space Girl are allowed to ascend into the heavens in an ecstatic death scene that releases the film’s melancholic tension of unfulfilled lust. In retrospect, the film’s chilly reception in North America might not be much of a mystery, as Hooper appeared to be telling his fans that there’s more to life than guy’s stuff, and that eventually a man must put away evasive self-absorptions—an assertion that beats as the heart underneath Lifeforce’s amusing horror-movie antics.
Taken from a high-definition restoration that director Tobe Hooper personally oversaw, Lifeforce looks better than ever, boasting a rich and varied color palette that fulfills the director’s intentions of mounting a gorgeous space gothic. Reds nearly pop off the screen, and the painterly matte shots in the film’s beginning are now imbued with welcome majesty. The image looks somewhat soft, but appealingly so, as that honors the film’s source materials and grain levels. The various sound mixes are detailed and impressively immersive.
The audio commentaries, featuring Hooper and makeup effects designer Nick Maley, respectively, both engagingly cover a wealth of material in regard to the film’s making and reception. New featurettes with Hooper, Steve Railsback, and Mathilda May tread similar ground, but are obviously, and effectively, included for nostalgia value so as to update fans on the filmmakers’ contemporary perspectives on their work, and May is particularly charming. A vintage "Making-of Lifeforce" featurette serves a similarly sentimental intention, allowing viewers to see how a big movie was promoted back before "tent-pole" was a word uttered casually at the breakfast table and event movies could be counted on to arrive on schedule twice every week. There’s a variety of other promotional materials, as well as, for completist prosperity, the truncated 101-minute version of the film originally released in America. Overall, an attentive, fun package.
If you think you’ve got it rough in the love department, try dating a gorgeous space-vampire hell-bent on harvesting your planet’s souls. Then we’ll talk.